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In Zimbabwe, dissent wears mask of theatre

By Robyn Dixon

THE stage was a small room in the Harare Central Police Station. The audience, about 20 bored policemen and plainclothes intelligence officers. The two ac

tors were shaking, not with stage fright but the real thing. Anthony Tongani stammered and forgot his lines. Silvanos Mudzvova was so afraid that he didn’t dare make a mistake.

They stumbled to the end. Then they were ordered to start again. And again. They performed their political satire, The Final Push, 12 times in two days at the station, while police and officers from the Central Intelligence Organisation argued over what charges to press against the actors and fired questions about who had funded the show.

“The first time the officer-in-charge was not there. When he came, he demanded his own performance. Then the superintendent came, and he demanded his own performance,” Mudzvova said. “It got worse when the CIO came in. One of them was actually sleeping during the performance. Then he’d wake up and say, “Are you through?”’
A rich culture of protest theatre has sprung up in Zimbabwe, but artists are under increasing pressure from President Robert Mugabe’s security forces as he crushes dissent.

Mudzvova and Tongani were arrested at the premiere of The Final Push in late September. Tongani was arrested before he could take his final bow, and Mudzvova immediately after taking his.

The play, written by Mudzvova, is about the chairman of a building called Liberty House (a thinly disguised Mugabe) and his political challenger (presumed to be opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai) trapped together in an elevator during a power failure. At one point, the two duke it out in a boxing match. In Zimbabwe’s repressive climate, artists and actors find creative ways to protest. People crowd into clubs to drink beer and laugh at stand-up comedy poking fun at Zimbabwe’s problems. They turn out for the opening nights of political plays, even though police often raid theaters and close productions before the first lines are spoken. Zimbabwe’s underground arts culture is thriving, taking hard-hitting political messages to the masses in the crowded black townships, the engines of their cars running in case they need to make a quick escape from the authorities. Filmmakers recently secretly shot an underground movie based on a banned political play in Harare.

The two nights Mudzvova and Tongani spent in custody had elements of the kind of surreal political play in which they might perform. Police laughed in all the right places, especially when the chairman gets knocked out by his opponent. But the CIO men were outraged. “The CIO guys tried to convince the police that we were actually talking about the president being knocked down,” Mudzvova recounted in an interview the day after his release. “But the police did not see it in that way. To them it was just a simple, straightforward story. The police did not know what to do with us. But the CIO kept insisting that we be charged. The question was, with what?”

In the end, Mudzvova and Tongani were charged with inciting the masses to revolt, a statute that carries a 20-year penalty. Twice, police modified the charges, first to criminal nuisance, and then breach of the censorship laws. Mudzvova says that with media freedom hobbled, it is up to artists to take a message of protest to Zimbabweans.

Bulawayo-based satirist Cont Mhlanga grew up in a village with no theatrical tradition. His father expected him to be a farmer. Mhlanga didn’t intend to become an actor, because he didn’t even know what it was. Even today in Zimbabwe, the idea of a career in the theatre is unthinkable for most people. It is seen as a last resort for beggars and failures, people incapable of producing something real to eat or sell.

In May, the officer-in-charge at Bulawayo Central Police Station went through Mhlanga’s play about Aids, Everyday Soldier, deleting lines with a red pen, offended because one character disappears as part of the plot. “He said, ‘You can’t have this because you are implying that people disappear in Zimbabwe.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to remove the lines. It will play as it is.’ He said, ‘It will not play as it is. I’ll close it down.’” He did prevent public presentation of the play, but Mhlanga found a way around it.

“We started to run the play for closed audiences. We just made sure there are no police in the audience.”
Mhlanga’s latest play, The Good President, inspired by beatings and arrests of opposition members in March, was shut down on opening night in June, and riot police surrounded the theatre for a week to prevent the actors from staging the play. To evade arrest or censorship, artists run underground projects. Mhlanga invented what he calls Invisible Theatre in bars, trains and the commuter minibuses.

In Invisible Theatre, several actors plant themselves in a group and improvise a conversation. “People don’t know they’re actors. The dialogue might be: “This government is terrible. Look at those kids in the street. They should be in school but they’re carrying water.” Then another actor will say, “Don’t start with that. You’ll get us all beaten. There are CIO guys everywhere.” Then a third actor will say, “The way we’re living in this country is more than a beating.” “Then other people will join in,” he said, referring to the unsuspecting people around them.

“The actors will keep directing the conversation, and the moment they think they’ve made a point, they will get off the taxi and get onto another one. The thing we are challenging is fear, because we know that people are afraid of discussing these things in public.”

In Harare, a theatre organisation named Savanna Trust does “hit-and-run” street performances in volatile areas such as Mashonaland West, where actors risk arrest by police or violence from ruling party thugs. They’re designed to reach people in poor, crowded neighborhoods who otherwise would never see theater. The performance must be quick, sharp and funny, and the actors ready for a quick getaway.

“When you do hit-and-run theatre, you beat drums and the people gather. You have a car there with the motor running,” Mudzvova said. “Your heart is beating very fast. You are full of fear that you are going to be arrested at any minute. You know the exact message that you want to give. You make sure the people get the message in the shortest time.” — LA Times.

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